Friday, June 8, 2012

A whimsical life list


Birds in art, legend and symbolism has been a repeated topic of this blog. What can I say? I'm a semi-reformed fantasy geek and one-time liberal arts student who still loves anything to do with mythology, so my love of birds is bound to get mixed up in all my other passions.

There are two categories of birds that, unfortunately, will never get checked off on my life list. One is the all-too-large list of birds that are extinct, and much as I wish I could hop aboard a time machine and see flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky, ivory-billed woodpeckers in their swampy southern homeland, or the inoffensive dodo on its island, the focus of this post will be something less depressing and more whimsical: birds that never existed to start with.

Part One -- The Phoenix

Probably the best known mythological bird is the wondrous phoenix, a bird of knowledge and the ages, that, at the end of its very long life, somehow rises again from its own ashes. We've all heard of the phoenix. I mean, you did read Harry Potter, right?

Accounts of the phoenix date at least as far back as the fifth century BC, when the Greek historian Herodotus, in his accounts of Egyptian wildlife, described it as such:

Another sacred bird is the one called the phoenix. Now, I have not actually seen a phoenix, except in a painting, because they are quite infrequent visitors to the country; in fact, I was told in Heliopolis that they appear only at 500-year intervals. They say that it is the death of a phoenix's father which prompts its visit to Egypt. Anyway, if the painting was reliable, I can tell you something about the phoenix's size and qualities, namely that its feathers are partly gold but mostly red, and that in appearance and size it is most like an eagle. There is a particular feat they say the phoenix performs; I do not believe it myself, but they say that the bird sets out from its homeland in Arabia on a journey to the sanctuary of the sun, bringing its father sealed in myrrh, and buries its father there.

I think it noteworthy that even back then the phoenix was described as a rare bird, certainly something to alert the local ornithological society about. It would not surprise me a bit if it has since gone extinct, as I do not believe there have been any recent sightings...recent meaning, oh, the past few centuries. Although if it is a bird of xeric habitats -- a.k.a., the desert -- perhaps it still survives in a remote outpost or two. If passing bedouin or Tuareg caught sight of one, would they even bother to report it to the appropriate committees? And if so, would they be believed? Doubtful, in both cases.

All ancient Western accounts, at least as far as my brief Internet perusal has shown, are actually more focused on the natural history of this splendid bird than on its symbolic and spiritual associations as a creature that can continuously renew or reinvent itself by rising again from its own ashes. In fact, that is almost a cliche nowadays..."like a phoenix rising from its own ashes." Perhaps the early Western reporters (such as Herodotus, above), in their factual accounts, simply did not grasp the metaphysical awesomeness of this bird, as we do today.

Another interesting thing about the phoenix is that, just as other bird families such as warblers, flycatchers and vireos, etc., are then categorized into separate species, so is the phoenix. I am not even sure if there is sufficient evidence for a phoneix occidentalis, as all early Western reports seem to place the accounts of the bird with some other, more exotic land, such as Egypt or India. I have yet to see a single reference to a true sighting of an Occidental phoenix, although, as I like to point out, birds have they can go pretty much where they please.

The Middle Eastern subspecies of the phoenix, however, is quite well defined, and is often called by its Persian name, Simurgh.

Simurgh, the Persian phoenix

As I described in a previous post, I find the Simurgh to be a fascinating creature: an ancient bird that has seen the destruction of the world three times over, that roosts in the tree of knowledge, and that is described as a metaphor of our spiritual quest in Sufi poetry, such as Farid ud-Din Attar's work, The Conference of the Birds. Perhaps we can call the Simurgh phoenix Iranii, in honor of its Persian heritage. In any event, I am not convinced that the Western phoenix is actually a different species than the Persian or Middle Eastern phoenix. It seems more likely to me that the early Greek accounts were simply of this Middle Eastern bird, and two separate species do not exist.

But what about the Russian firebird?


The Fire Bird is a creature of Slavic folklore that is associated with a difficult quest, appearing in plumes of gaudy red and gold. The bird is featured in folk tales such as Ivan Tsarevitch and the Grey Wolf, and, of course, in Igor Stravinsky's modern musical masterpiece (and ballet), The Firebird, but again, I am not convinced that this is an actual sub-species as opposed to accidental sightings of the Middle Eastern phoenix. So many legends...but just one bird? As all hard core birders know, a real bummer for the life list!

On the other hand, the Oriental phoenix does appear to be a separate species, although it does share some of the same characteristics:

Chinese phoenix

Like its Middle Eastern counterpart, the Chinese phoenix is ancient, colorful in its plumage and fortuitous in its sightings -- and distinct enough that I think we can safely declare a separate species, phoenix orientalis. Still, that would be a very rare sighting -- one that I would not want to present without impeccable photographic evidence, and several reliable eyewitnesses thrown in to boot.

So much for the phoenix! -- so many legends, but, it seems, just two species. However, once we have a couple of phoenixes on our Whimsical Life Lists, we can proceed to:

Part Two -- the Hybrids

These are creatures that are partly bird and partly, well...something else. A few examples.

The Harpy:

Half bird and half woman, in the modern vernacular, a synonym for an unpleasant, nagging female. The story comes from ancient Greek mythology, and in modern times only has parallel to the South American harpy eagle. Harpy eagles are not easy to see...but harpies? Well, a camera and a half a dozen sober witnesses will probably not help your cause should you see one.....

Then there is the griffin, or half-lion, half-eagle.

Although ever popular with heraldry, real-life (or even whimsical) existence: doubtful.

If you mix an eagle with a horse it becomes a hippogriff:

Hippogriff, Gustave Dore, Orlando Furisoso

Despite numerous legendary accounts of these creatues, I somehow doubt that these mutations are scientifically possible. Since these accounts far pre-date the advent of pesticides of nuclear fallout, perhaps these strange species represent some past anomaly (e.g., radiation from outer space) or are simply apocryphal. Either way, should you see one, even extensive photographic evidence would probably not be convincing, but since the Life List is such a personal thing, I say, go ahead and add it! And let the skeptics say what they may!

And finally we have the cockatrice, a dragon with the head of a rooster.


Whatever those ancients were smoking when they came up with these things...hey, I wanna get me some! But in any case, it's all good on the whimsical life list!

And finally....
The Modern


A symbol dating from earlier in the century for the Air Defense Artillery, or, to quote Wikipedia:

The body of the shield "parti per fess, divetailed" indicates the general woodenness, not of the Artillery Board and the other members of the "Gridiron Club" but of the passing throng who paid not their toll cheerfully in passing through the Sanctum to the bar. "Gules and Sable:" The color of the shield is red and black-red for the Artillery, and black in mourning for those who lost at dice by throwing the lowest spots. "In honor, a deuce spot of dice, lozenged. proper:" The honor point of the shield was given to the lowest marked dice, as it was the one which most frequently appeared to some members, the law of probabilities to the contrary notwithstanding. "In nombril a gridiron sable:" the lower half of the shield given over to the memory of those who did not belong to the "Gridiron Club" but who were constantly roasted by it. The supporters, "two Oozlefinches, regardant, proper," were a natural selection, "regardant" meaning looking, or better, all-seeing, with the great eyes that this bird has to protect while in flight in the manner described.
The crest "a terrapin, passant dexter proper, " was selected owing to the great number of these animals, cooked to perfection by Keeney Chapman and served with great pomp to the members of the Artillery Board on occasions of state. This was always accompanied by libations of "red top, " red top being a now obsolete drink made in the Champagne Country of France and once imported to the United States, in times gone by that now seem almost prehistoric.
The wavy bar, over which the terrapin is passing, represents the adjacent waters of the Chesapeake, the natural habitat of this animal.

OK, if you started to go blank part way though the quote, count me in! But even if I find it hard to follow the description in the "field guide," I want to see a oozlefinch, if only because they have the funniest name ever.

And my personal favorite:


For proof that the ultimate bird-a-thon lies in the future, not the past, I give you Suzanne Collins' creature from her Hunger Games trilogy, the mockingjay. And the reference to a story about a battle to the death is even to the point, as my husband has suggested that birding would interest him a lot more if was more of a contact sport. "You can't all get the same bird," he says, suggesting that the "rules" of the game be changed to allow tricking, tripping or even tasering your fellow birders in order to get the bird in question on your own check list. Not that I am advocating this in real life, but I keep telling him that would make an awesome video game should he ever want to program it.

Are there any birds that appear on your whimsical lfie list? Let me know, and maybe someday they'll be featured here!


  1. Love the post! I have heard that the hippogriff is half-horse and half-eagle. If one can have the hippogriff, may one have the Heavenly Angel Bird, a stunningly beautiful white bird that sheds sparkles of glitter as it flies, and whose call sounds like the tinkling of the harp, and the Devil Bird, coal black, with red eyes, that attacks one with talons as sharp as a pitchfork? MOM

  2. So right about the hippogriff. I really couldn't tell from the pictures...old timey drawings not being the best field guides, I guess.

    1. James suggested that birding would be interesting (to him) if it were an activity conducted more along the lines of "Survivor." He and Larry could create an awesome game along these lines! Clearly there would be a market...look at "Angry Birds!" Mom